Practical Radicals

You say you want a business revolution? Not so fast.

Name: Debra Meyerson
Occupation: Professor, Simmons Graduate School of Management; visiting professor, Stanford University; author of Tempered Radicals
Aspiration: "This is not a revolutionary style. But it is the stuff of change. It is the true content of leadership."

Ever since she arrived as a child from Mexico, Maricela Gallegos has heard the same question: Couldn't she Americanize her name? "Mary" would be so much easier to pronounce. "I say, No, my name is Maricela. All my brothers and sisters changed their names. They always said to me, 'Why do you go against the grain? Roll with the punches.' But I could never do that. I'd be shortchanging myself."

This has been one small act of rebellion for Gallegos, 48, a stance that asserts her authentic identity in an alien culture. There have been other acts since. A few years ago, Gallegos was working in the human-resources department of a Hewlett-Packard factory located in California. She grew compelled by questions of affirmative action and diversity, but her managers at the time didn't consider race and gender to be pressing problems. Instead, they agreed to let her work on programs for employees with disabilities.

"It was a foot in the door," she recalls. "I knew that gender and race were important issues. But I needed to work on something that the organization was willing to support." She organized a local network of workers with disabilities, then used their numbers to convince a small group of managers to declare a "disability-awareness day."

"They didn't realize what I was going to do," she says. What she did was bring in people from 30 nonprofit organizations to educate employees. She also borrowed 100 wheelchairs so that people at hp could feel what it was like to work in one. She got 100 sound-blocking devices so that people could experience deafness. She blindfolded employees and sent them on an obstacle course.

"That made all the difference," Gallegos says. "It transformed the work site." She organized the same event for four more years, then started organizing networks for women, people of color, and gay and lesbian employees. She won the confidence of senior managers, and, with their support, she produced workshops that dealt with racism, sexual harassment, and homophobia for thousands of employees. "These things were risky," says Vicki Martinez, who was a staffing representative at hp at the time. "But they paved the way for change."

There are Maricela Gallegoses everywhere — in the cubicle next door, perhaps, or in a remote regional sales office. You know the sort: They operate deep within big companies, well beneath the cultural radar, and are practically invisible to the top brass. They are part of their organization, yet somehow apart as well, professional irritants who are tolerated more than embraced. They survive and persist: Employing many different styles and strategies, typically waging small battles rather than epic wars, they work slowly to change the rules.

Debra Meyerson calls these individuals "tempered radicals." From her academic perches at Simmons Graduate School of Management and Stanford University, Meyerson, 43, has studied such people for more than a decade. Her forthcoming book, which is tentatively titled Tempered Radicals (Harvard Business School Press, April 2001), will document the phenomenon.

Meyerson defines tempered radicals as employees who operate on a fault line. They are committed to the organization that they work for. To some measure, moreover, they want to advance on their employer's terms; their company's success is theirs too. At the same time, though, they are at odds with their company. Marginalized by gender, race, or ideology, they identify with causes that defy the dominant culture. While they feel bound to their organization's goals, they also aim to stay true to their own personal ideals.

And so they pursue change, constantly challenging the status quo. It is often a personally torturous path. Because tempered radicals pursue goals that are rooted in their own identities, their efforts tend to be passionate. But because they also happen to sympathize with their organization, the changes that they introduce are mostly incremental. They are ambivalent, cautious catalysts, and they are content with small victories that, over time, lay the groundwork for something grander. "This is not a revolutionary style," Meyerson says of the tempered radical's approach. "But it is the stuff of change. It is the true content of leadership."

In these early days of the Internet Age, we have grown accustomed to the harsh language of revolution. Startups vow to "overthrow" big-company rivals. New CEOs promise to "reinvent" the companies that they've been charged with leading. And that transformation is supposed to arrive in a flash, because everything is supposed to happen fast.

But here's the reality: Revolution isn't all we'd cracked it up to be. Most real change doesn't occur instantaneously. To bring about change, people need to have a leadership style that's different from that of the starkly aggressive, abusive captain we once lionized. It requires people working patiently inside organizations, seeking only modest progress. It demands radicals, surely — but radicals of a more considered sort.

Tempered radicalism, then, represents a truer picture of change. It's not dramatic. It doesn't meet our craving for instant transformation. But it's how real leaders really operate.

The Making of a (Tempered) Radical

Debra Meyerson grew up in Southfield, Michigan, where her father was a builder and her mom was a housewife. The Meyerson home wasn't an intellectual or political cauldron; nothing in her upbringing, in fact, hinted at the feminist path that Meyerson would later pursue. If there was any symbol at all of what her life would become, it came in the form of the 470-class sailboat that she raced with her dad. "We were always out in winds that were a bit too high to handle for our weight," Meyerson remembers. "And I routinely pushed a bit too far, so we'd end up capsizing, often with Dad out on the trapeze. He just wanted to push the edge and have fun; I mostly wanted to win. We had a blast."

Meyerson studied political science at MIT, then got her MBA at MIT's Sloan School of Management. Lacking any real career direction, she waitressed and skied for a year in Vail, Colorado. Then her consciousness was sparked when she taught skiing for Women's Way Adventures. Based in Squaw Valley, California, the travel/adventure company gave women the confidence to take risks, in part by letting them define their own adventure. "It planted the seed for me," Meyerson says. "I saw how people are constrained by their circumstances, how small interventions can change possibilities."

She worked for a consulting firm for about a year, hated it, and decided to return to school. She wanted to find a doctoral program in which she could study how social interactions between individuals and institutions occurred, and how social institutions could be made to be less oppressive. She had no thought of becoming an academic. "I was interested in being relevant, in making a difference." She landed at Stanford's Graduate School of Business.

And there, her incipient radicalism festered. Stanford, like most business schools, was a fairly conservative place. Its core mission involved creating young captains for capitalist industry. Its language, which was rooted in war, dominance, and "win-lose," didn't easily accommodate equity and social justice, much less the feminist ideals that Meyerson brought to the table. Her dissertation, a study of social workers in hospitals, met with studied indifference. "As a student, I began to feel that I was really deviant for caring about this stuff."

Meyerson and Maureen Scully, who was another PhD candidate in organizational behavior, would spend hours in their cozy shared office venting their frustrations. The two women wondered what had happened to the radicals of the 1960s and 1970s. Had they disappeared? Had they been co-opted?

Neither, really. They had become ... tempered.

Exhibit A was Joanne Martin, Meyerson's Stanford mentor and thesis adviser. In 1984, Martin, who is now 53, had become the first woman ever to gain tenure at the business school. She was successful. She was respected. And she had quietly used her institutional credibility to help advance the following agenda: to open the doors of academia and business to more women, minorities, and men whose mind-sets were very different from that of the average business-school student. "I talked with Deb and Maureen about how I balanced the demands of a business-school culture with my values and the needs of my family," Martin says. "I was trying to conform enough to be effective, but not so much as to be co-opted."

Martin was, in effect, a prototypical tempered radical. Meyerson and Scully soon encountered many more people like her. Having finished her PhD, Meyerson took a junior-faculty position at the University of Michigan, where she met Sharon E. Sutton, an African-American professor of architecture.

Sutton, now 59, seemed strikingly out of place: Before entering academia, she had been in private practice in New York. She had concluded that building design should better serve the needs of users — and so she had directed her efforts toward a more holistic design approach that depended on community participation.

When she arrived at Michigan in 1984, Sutton felt as if she was lost. "I thought I had gone to the edge of the earth," she recalls. Her offbeat ideas on teaching design weren't welcomed by the mainstream architecture department. At faculty meetings, she says, she was disparaged — not least by two fellow African-American professors.

She lay low, steering clear of departmental politics. Over time, though, her work attracted national attention. "I didn't care anymore whether I got tenure," Sutton recalls. She won tenure anyway, but remained "a prophet everywhere but in my own camp." Even so, she stayed put until 1998. Michigan gave her a national pulpit from which to make change. It also allowed her to have an influence on future generations of architects. "I compromised myself in exchange for the power of the institution," she says.

Meyerson was fascinated by the enduring ambivalence of Sutton and those like her. "How do you hold on to what it means to be an African-American woman, and at the same time fit into a predominantly white-male context?" Meyerson asks. "Not just fit in, but also succeed? These are people who want simultaneously to rock the boat and stay inside it. They want to stay inside because they are invested, to a greater or lesser extent, in the system."

Meyerson believes that such ambivalence, when managed in the right way, can strengthen leaders. Whereas compromise seeks a flavorless middle ground, ambivalence "involves pure expression of both sides of a dualism." Individuals, she and Scully wrote in a 1995 paper, "can remain ambivalent and [yet be] quite clear about their attachments and identities." They can operate as "outsiders within," granted access to opportunities for changing organizations, but remaining detached enough to recognize what needs changing.

The Power of "Small Wins"

Meyerson began to broaden her research. Her notion of tempered radicalism was born of a feminist orientation and of observations of how women operated in male- dominated organizations. The theory neatly explained how many women effect change. She learned, though, that the characterization resonates with other marginalized groups too — with racial minorities, with gays and lesbians, and even with some white men.

These new everyday leaders come in all stripes. Roger Saillant, 57, is a white man who grew up in a string of foster homes. Since the rules changed with every new home, he says, he learned that "the only rules that matter are the ones that are right for you." So when he arrived as a chemist at Ford Motor Co. 30 years ago, he recalls, "I couldn't accept blindly the things that I was told."

Saillant went after his own agenda, which was rooted in his passion for the environment and his sympathy for the disadvantaged. Now, as VP and general manager of a division within Visteon Corp. (which spun off from Ford in June), a leading supplier of integrated automotive-technology systems, Saillant has acquired the credibility necessary to put his ideals into place. He is trying to expose his top executives to principles of environmental sustainability. For example, he's having people figure out how much material Visteon dumps into landfills each year. He hopes to forge associations with small companies that will help make Visteon greener.

"I don't think the system trusts me," Saillant says. "But my people love it." Indeed, says Micky Moulder, a Visteon manager who worked with Saillant in the late 1980s, "I came away from that time a much better person, a better leader. And I know that I influenced others. If you ask, How has Roger changed Visteon?, it's hard to say, exactly. But his footprints are everywhere. You can feel the change."

Meyerson grew captivated by the tensions faced by tempered radicals like Saillant — and also by the differences between what drove the ambivalence of white men like him and what motivated women and people of color. To learn more, she studied upwards of 100 leaders and change agents in two large business organizations.

What she found: First, there is no one template for tempered radicals. Such leaders exist along a continuum. Their degree of radicalism depends partly on their perceptions of their own organizational credibility, or on their sense of financial security. Almost always, though, their degree of temperedness is tied to a deeper motivation. Highly tempered radicals, Meyerson argues, "are driven by a real impulse for personal authenticity. They say, 'I just want to save my soul. I don't want to sell out.' Many of them deny being radicals, even tempered ones." Typically, their personal goals are aligned closely with those of their employer; they may be more invested than others in the company's success. "But they're still nudging at the system — and I say that those little nudges make a difference."

And it truly was nudging that Meyerson observed in her subjects. "These people aren't challenging the whole system," she says. "People have benefited from the system, and there's power in remaining inside it. So they just want to move it a little bit."

One man in her study, for example, refused to let work overwhelm his commitment to his family. He wanted to contribute to his company, and he wanted the company to succeed. But he also wanted to coach his kids' soccer teams — and that meant leaving the office before any of his colleagues. He made clear, as well, his desire not to be bothered by work calls between 6 PM and 8 PM, his treasured family time. "So people stopped calling then," Meyerson says. "And gradually, it became an organizational norm that no one wanted to be disturbed during those hours at home. This man was very much driven by his desire to maintain his values — but he unwittingly paved the way for this small company to change its practices."

Meyerson calls such events "small wins" and regards them as a central strategy for effective radicals. For one thing, the approach nicely reduces large problems to ones that are easier to manage. More importantly, small wins are inherently less risky. "What these people do is push back and negotiate resistance. They test the system, subtly challenging norms. They prod gently, because that's all the system can take."

Indeed, tempered radicals understand, either instinctively or through painful experience, what the organizational limits are. Kirk Tucker, 56, who heads planning and strategy for Harley-Davidson's big York, Pennsylvania motorcycle manufacturing plant, was reassigned midway through his engineering career when he pressed too hard and too early for organizational changes. He realizes now that "you have to recognize how far you can push. If you push it too far, you will become ineffective. When you're ineffective, you put yourself at risk. One mentor told me years ago, 'Have patience. It's going to take them a while to figure out that you're right.' "

At PricewaterhouseCoopers, partner Monique Connor, 35, finds satisfaction in the smallest of victories. She quit the security of the tax-consulting track to get her MBA and rejoin the firm in human resources, hoping to press for broad cultural change. But such change, she understands, arrives in increments. "Just changing the language of an organization can be a huge success. In a lot of the work that we do with partners, we'll invent scenarios for illustration and populate them with 'she's. That represents a real cultural shift here."

Negotiating those small wins, though, represents no small task; like any change, they require organizational capital and political savvy. Roger Saillant knows that, whatever else he does, he has to contribute to Visteon's bottom line. "Once I do that, they become increasingly forgiving with regard to some of the other things I want to pursue." When Jacqui MacDonald, 49, head of fair trade at the Body Shop, pushed for fair-trade reforms, she made sure that she accommodated the pricing and delivery demands that the Body Shop's purchasing managers were facing. "To be effective, you had to talk their language and help them solve their problems," she says.

At the other end of Meyerson's continuum are tempered radicals who explicitly pursue organizational change. Less tempered, often with less invested in the organization, "they're taking bigger personal risks, trying to rattle the system. They're still concerned about their own authenticity — but they want bigger changes. They turn that series of microinteractions into bigger opportunities."

Dixie Garr, 45, Cisco Systems's VP of customer-success engineering, continually creates opportunities for herself and others. She mostly says exactly what's on her mind, aiming to "shock people so that they think." While she's tempered enough to have survived five big corporate employers, she's also an unabashed system rattler.

Garr was the youngest of eight kids growing up in tiny Dubach, Louisiana. Neither of her parents finished junior high school, but they were radical thinkers around Dubach. "They helped me understand that I didn't have to buy into the things I heard around me," Garr says. She didn't. As a young engineer at Texas Instruments, for example, she told a manager that she wanted to become an executive at the company. "He laughed at me. I had only been there for two years. It was totally outside his way of thinking, especially coming from a black woman. But he later worked for me."

Finding TI to be less than inclusive of diversity, Garr was founding chair of the company's Minority Leadership Initiative, and she fought for the promotion of African-Americans. At Cisco, she battles for diversity of a different sort. With every second or third job opening under her control, she aims to hire someone about whom people will say, " 'You hired him?' He'll be someone who brings a different perspective, a kook — and he'll turn out to be wonderful."

A tempered radical, Garr says, "must not compromise on the vision, but must be flexible on the approach. You have to broach ideas that go against the natural instinct of the organization — but you have to do that in a palatable way. Organizations have antibodies, just like people. It's important that you deliver change in such a way that the antibodies don't totally attack it before it's had a chance to grow."

The Lonely Work of Making Change

Meyerson proposes that in an effective change environment, radicals across the spectrum of temperedness ought to complement each other and work together to effect change. Yet more often, she says, radicals at different points on the continuum mistrust and alienate one another. Those at the more radical pole chide what they see as the timidity of those who are more tempered, while those at the tempered pole are put off by the aggressiveness of those who are more radical.

"And these are people who should be natural allies," Meyerson says. She recalls working for a year at Stanford's Institute for Research on Women and Gender. Finally, she thought: Here is an environment where I won't be seen as a radical, where I'll fit right in. Instead, she found, "I was seen as suspect because of my affiliation with the business school. I was viewed as one of them."

The phenomenon of mistrust is even odder given that radicals' degree of temperedness often fluctuates over the course of their work life, as their financial status or their role within their organization changes. Individuals who feared standing out early in their careers can be emboldened over time by advancement into positions of greater authority.

Or they can travel the other way. Michael V. Littlejohn, an African-American executive, had no problem voicing his opinions on the deficiencies in minority hiring and retention while a rising manager at Price Waterhouse. He admits, actually, that he probably pushed too hard or too visibly, creating resentment among his peers and superiors.

Littlejohn, 42, is currently general manager of IBM's Learning Services in the Americas, running a division of 1,500 employees. He remains true to his identity as a black man: His office is filled with African-American art; he hires several minority interns each year; and he heads his division's Black Executive Network.

But he also feels more visible now, and he feels more responsibility to appear to be acting in all employees' interests. In a way, he admits, he has become gradually more co-opted by the organization that he works for. "The higher you rise, the more people look at you and wonder, Are you the sort of executive we need? So the higher I've risen, the more risk-averse I've become. I'm not sure if that's maturity, or coming to terms with greater power. I realize that I'm walking on thinner eggshells now."

Ultimately, tempered radicals' failure to cooperate with each other across the continuum of radicalness only serves to accentuate the sense of isolation that most of them experience. Operating on the organizational fault line, afraid to affiliate too closely with any one group, such individuals can be, simply, lonely.

"It was very hard sometimes," Maricela Gallegos recalls of her time spent championing diversity at the plant level. "You feel very alone, trying to move hard and to convince people to embrace change. You have to look at making change over the long term, because day to day, you don't really see it. That was my struggle for 10 years. It was important for me to think about the company's future. But sometimes my efforts to bring about change hurt my career. You don't move as fast in your promotions, because you're offending the people who have a say in your career path."

Today, however, Gallegos is thriving. She has moved from the local plant to hp's Global Diversity office, where she helps create strategies for disability programs worldwide. She is also working with the company's Latin-American operations to tackle diversity issues. She serves on both state and presidential committees serving people with disabilities. She has reached a place, she says, where "it's okay to challenge."

Likewise, Roger Saillant is now operating near the top of Visteon. After making little progress for the first 15 years of his career, he was selected to launch a new plant located in Mexico — a role in which he excelled. Based on that success, he was quickly promoted two more levels. Kirk Tucker, having survived his exile from Harley-Davidson's headquarters, now has a senior-management job at the company's biggest plant. And Dixie Garr reports to a senior VP one level below the chief executive at Cisco, one of the most successful companies in America.

These tempered radicals, in other words, have not been killed off. They are irritants to their organizations in the way that pearls are irritants to oysters. There is something about these individuals that their organizations want to keep and nurture — even if the relationship is mutually painful. "I got here because this place has the capability of creating people like me," Saillant says. "Ford could have ground me to chalk, or at least diminished what I was trying to do. But it was curiously enabling."

The relationships between individuals and institutions are mutually enabling, actually. Tempered radicals stay where they are in the face of ongoing frustration because they appreciate the sheer power inherent in their big, if flawed, employers. "Why have I stayed here?" Saillant muses. "I could go out and become a top officer in a lot of different companies. And yet, if I make a change here, it will have a huge impact globally. Just in my division, there are 12,000 people in 11 countries. Why play in New Haven when you have a chance to play on Broadway?"

So it is for Debra Meyerson at Stanford. She has taught at the business school on and off since 1994, and now has made her home in California with her husband and three children. She still thinks of herself as an outsider at this elite but conservative academic institution — a status confirmed by her ongoing work at Simmons Graduate School of Management, in Boston, where she is a professor of management. Simmons is certainly an ideologically more welcoming place for her.

It's important for Meyerson, professionally and personally, to stay on the organizational margin. Yet she also recognizes that, on some level, Stanford has accepted her. It wants to have her and her intellectual radicalism around the joint. It recognizes, perhaps, the longevity that accrues to institutions with a greater diversity of ideas. Stanford is better for the conflicted experience. So, perhaps, is she.

Keith H. Hammonds (khammonds@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior editor based in New York. Contact Debra Meyerson by email (debram@leland.stanford.edu).

Sidebar: Tips for Tempered Radicals

Professor Debra Meyerson has spent more than a decade studying how real grassroots leaders make a difference in their organizations. Her forthcoming book, tentatively titled Tempered Radicals, will document her findings and offer case studies of the hard work of radical change. Here is a short course on some of her insights.

  1. Seek small wins. Bringing about deep-seated cultural change in a large organization is a massive proposition — and an enormous, long-term challenge. Better to break the problem up into smaller, more manageable pieces than to pretend that you can tackle it all at once. Leaders can experiment with these smaller efforts to unearth resources, allies, and potential sources of resistance.
    Smaller efforts also foster less fear and mistrust among peers and superiors. A string of small wins is usually more palatable to the organization than is an attempt at wholesale change.
  2. Act locally and authentically. Change doesn't always come from an explicit effort to make change — and it rarely comes about at the urging of outside consultants or as a result of bloodless strategic plans. Tempered radicals often act solely from an urge to remain true to their own ideals; their local actions can unintentionally spark broader results.
    Take this modest example: An African-American employee refused a superior's request that she unbraid her hair for a client meeting. Her immediate boss congratulated her for her courage, and then congratulated the entire organization for expanding its image of professionalism. That small gesture, made out of personal belief, sent a large and powerful signal.
  3. Speak the language. Often, people in organizations accept change more easily when it's expressed in terms that they can relate to both personally and professionally. A diversity effort, for example, may resonate louder for corporate managers if they grasp the business implications of the initiative. Before pitching a "fair trade" strategy that would require her company to pay higher prices to its suppliers, the Body Shop's Jacqui MacDonald made sure that she understood the cost implications for purchasing managers.
  4. Build affiliations. Radicalism can be isolating. Effective leaders develop networks of people outside (and sometimes inside) their organizations who can provide information, resources, emotional support, and empathy. Michael V. Littlejohn at IBM maintains three such networks: his family, a circle of close friends in similar roles, and a group of fellow radicals in the company. "You can't survive unless you have that support system," he says.

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